Sunday, May 6, 2012

1st Grade Composers & Sight Singers, Part 1

One of my favorite end-of-the-year projects with 1st grade students is using a single-line staff to read and compose music.  Basically, you teach students to read notes that are either below a line, on the line, or above the line (Do, Re, and Mi) and then compose songs using those same three notes.  Not as easy as you might think if you are a first grade student.  When reading music, "up" on a xylophone is not the same direction as "up" on the staff.  And when it comes to composing, anyone can make up a song.  Notating it with manipulatives, writing it down permanently, and performing someone else's song are the hard parts.

My inspiration for this unit is Mark Burrows, a music educator who has written books, songs, and mini-musicals.  I have never been disappointed when purchasing something by Mr. Burrows, and when elementary music budgets are tight, there is little worse than spending $20 on a resource that disappoints.  His book, Outside the Lines, is great for introducing composition to students in a natural, constructivist way.  (I have never met Mr. Burrows, nor am I receiving commission on this - his stuff is just awesome).

Here's how I start this unit (first 30-minute class):
We start this unit by figuring out how to notate Hot Cross Buns, a song the students already know.  To do this, you need the following:
• a long strip of black construction paper (to be the line),
• 3 circles* of the same color with the word "hot" written on them
• 3 circles of another color with the word "cross" written on them
• 3 circles of a third color with the word "buns" written on them
• 1 small white rectangle with the words "one a penny" typed on it
• 1 small white rectangle with the words "two a penny" typed on it

*To make the circles I use as "notes," I use a die-cut machine to get circles that are all the same size, about 1.5" diameter.  And be careful not to use red/yellow/green because the students will equate that to a stoplight.

Sing Hot Cross Buns with the regular lyrics.  Then sing it a few more ways - using solfege and also using "high, middle, and low" to replace "Mi, Re, and Do".  Put gestures with it - head/shoulders/hips for high/middle/low and Curwen hand signs for Mi/Re/Do.  We have fun talking about the history of Hot Cross Buns, too.

Tell the students they have to figure out how to play Hot Cross Buns on the xylophone and write it out with the supplies.  Ask them how many different notes they will need - they will come up with the correct answer of three.  Give them only one hint - that the first note is E.  Demonstrate what to do with the supplies, and remind them that you read music from left to right, one note at a time.  Let them get to work on their xylophones and give them a little struggle time.

After a minute or two, it will be time for this question: "Which way is low on a xylophone?"  Kids want to equate low with little, and they think smaller bars are lower (wrong!) Another misconception is that the black keys are higher because they are spatially higher than the white keys.  Other students will recognize correctly that Left = Lower on a xylophone.

Once they have figured out how to play the song, they need to notate it using the supplies you provided.  Two of the biggest problems will be placing notes above each other (making chords instead of individual notes) and squashing notes too close together.  Teach students to write music like we read a book - left to right, one word at a time.  The most difficult parts will be the "one a penny" and "two a penny" papers.  If you play what they have notated, they will quickly see what is incorrect.

After everyone figures it out and you have played it together, call the students back together.  I like to use the Smartboard at this point and have students notate what they just made with manipulatives on the Smartboard.  I have a notebook file with colored circles and rectangles that match their manipulatives.  Using the notation on the Smartboard, we close by singing it again using normal lyrics, high/medium/low, and finally solfege.

Next up - Dogs, Lambs, and little Beethovens

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